Wilde, Oscar

Assigned: Wilde, Oscar. “Preface” to The Picture of Dorian Gray (765-66); from “The Decay of Lying” (766-70); from “The Critic as Artist” (770-783). Also read the editors’ introduction (762-65).

“Preface” to The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)

1. On 765-66 (“The artist is the creator of beautiful things…”), what main concerns do Wilde’s aphorisms address with regard to art and literature and their relation to the wider world and its concerns about “usefulness,” “morality,” and other practical, constraining factors? What perspective on art is Wilde promoting here? Choose a couple of the aphorisms and examine them in light of these questions.

2. General question: Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, got him into hot water with the ubiquitous moral critics of his day. If you are familiar with that novel, what was it about the book that generated so much antagonism and condemnation? How did Wilde answer his critics? In what sense might his “Preface” to Dorian Gray (765-66) have been intended as a warding-off of such negative responses to his novel?

From “The Decay of Lying” (1891)

1. On 766-79 (Cyril. “* * * But even admitting this strange…”), Vivian discusses the relationship between art and history, art and a given age or society. While he says early in this passage that “Art never expresses anything but itself” (766) and that it “rejects the burden of the human spirit” (767), which types of art does he suggest may be more capable of revealing the “temper” (767) of a given age, and why? Which type of art is least capable of doing that, and why? How should we interpret Vivian’s outlandish assertion that “the whole of Japan is a pure invention” and that one should be able to see “a Japanese effect” (768) in London’s fashionable places?

2. On 769 (Cyril. “* * * But in order to avoid making any error…”), Vivian sets forth three doctrines of “the new Aesthetics.” The first of these doctrines is, “Art never expresses anything but itself.” What significance does Vivian draw from this declaration with regard to how we should view the relationship (or non-relationship) between art, society and history? What mistake, according to Vivian, do historians make when they try to make artistic movements and styles correspond to “the times” in which they appear? What would a Marxist or materialist critic most likely think of Vivian’s (or Wilde’s) assertions in this regard?

3. On 769 (Vivian. “The second doctrine is this…”), the second of the three doctrines of Vivian’s “new Aesthetics” is that “All bad art comes from returning to Life and Nature, and elevating them into ideals.” How does he explain the significance of this doctrine in relation to the opposition between realism and Romanticism? Why does Vivian favor Romanticism? Consider his semi-Kantian declaration that “The only beautiful things are the things that do not concern us”—what happens to a work of art, by implication, when its subject matter does concern us in some deeply moral or practical way? (Regarding disinterestedness,see Immanuel Kant, Leitch 431-34.)

4. On 769-70 (Vivian. “The third doctrine is that…”), Vivian sets forth his third doctrine: “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life” (769). How does he justify this bold conclusion, which turns mimetic or imitative theories of art upside down? Why, according to Vivian, should art refrain from imitating life, and why should life instead imitate art? In what sense does Nature, too, “imitate Art” (770)? Finally, in accordance with his defiantly anti-imitative, anti-realist views, what does Vivian suggest is “the proper aim of art” (770)?

5. General question: The Norton selection refers only briefly to Vivian’s main thesis, which is that “the decay of lying” is a lamentable development in modern Western societies. View Wilde’s full essay “The Decay of Lying” on a reliable website or in hard copy. What does Oscar Wilde mean by “lying,” and why is its “decay” such a loss for the modern world? What hierarchy of values and expectations is he trying to overturn when he uses this normally pejorative term in a positive way, and how is this strategy characteristic of his approach to the value of literature and art?

6. General question: It is obvious from his many quips and more sustained arguments in criticism such as “The Decay of Lying” that Oscar Wilde, an impressionist in art and something of a leftist “anarchist” in politics, had little patience with literary realism, the dominant aesthetic doctrine of his time. Clearly, Wilde felt that realism was unimaginative and that it tied readers and viewers too closely to a world that needed changing, not reification (i.e., “thingification” that lends stability and seeming permanence) or reaffirmation. What has been your experience in engaging with literary realism? Do you dislike it, as Wilde does, or do you find it generally worthwhile and enjoyable? Explain.

From “The Critic as Artist” (1890/1891)

From Part1

1. On 770-72 (Ernest. “* * * I am quite ready to admit…”), Wilde’s Gilbert addresses the role of “the critical faculty” (770) in artistic creation. In doing so, as our editors point out, he engages with the ideas of the mid-Victorian critic Matthew Arnold. Read at least pages 685-86 (in Leitch) of Arnold’s essay “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” where he addresses the relationship between “the critical power” and the power of artistic creation. To what extent is Gilbert in agreement with Arnold’s viewpoint, and to what extent is he transforming the key Arnoldian concept of “criticism” in its relation to artistic creation? When Ernest (Arnold’s proxy, it seems) declares that “the creative faculty is higher than the critical” (770), how does Gilbert respond with his own recasting of the creative act itself? How does this recasting overturn stereotypically Romantic ideas about poetic inspiration and the spontaneous, unselfconscious creation of works of art?

2. On 772-73 (Ernest. “You have been talking of criticism…”), how does Gilbert address Ernest’s pointing out that whatever ideals one may put forth about the vital importance of “the critical faculty,” a great deal of actual criticism in the modern British press is simply not very good? Why isn’t Gilbert troubled by this assertion? How does he justify his counterclaims that “criticism demands infinitely more cultivation than creation does” (772) and that there is no need for critics to do more than sample much of the stuff they review and judge? In essence, how does he end up placing the blame on literary artists rather than critics?

3. On 773-74 (Ernest. “But, my dear fellow—excuse me…”), on what basis does Gilbert criticize Ernest’s insistence that action is superior to talk (presumably including criticism)? What does Gilbert have against the realm of action? Why, in his view, is talking about things better than doing things? How does Gilbert justify statements he makes about action such as, “It is a thing incomplete in its essence…” and “Its basis is the lack of imagination” (773)? In what sense is the “man of action,” according to Gilbert, undeniably far more filled with “illusions” (773) than even the dreamer, and in any case unable to know the future value of his or her actions?

4. On 774-76 (Ernest. “* * * But, surely, the higher you place…”), how does Gilbert, over against Ernest’s praise of the artist as the creator of a new and better world, justify his counter-statement that “Criticism is, in fact, both creative and independent” (774)? How is the highest kind of critical practitioner genuinely deserving of the title “creative” and engaged in a project similar to that of the creative artist? In what sense are excellent critics, according to Gilbert, at least as free of an imitative relationship with the objects of their attention as artists themselves? Even further, why is the “highest Criticism,” in Gilbert’s view, ultimately “in its way, more creative than creation” (775) and in that regard perhaps superior even to the work of the artist? How is this “highest Criticism,” this sophisticated literary impressionism not unlike that of Wilde’s onetime professor at Oxford, Walter Pater (see Leitch 711-19), also “the record of one’s own soul” (775)?

5. On 776-78 (Ernest. “But is that really so…”), how does Gilbert further advance his claim that criticism is even worthier a phenomenon than the creation of original works of art? How does he enlist the best work of his fellow Victorians John Ruskin and Walter Pater as illustrations of the superior criticism he invokes? How does Gilbert develop his comments into full-throated praise for impressionism and rejection of mimetic theory (the idea that artists basically “copy” the world around them, and try to represent human character, manners and emotions faithfully) as well as expressive theory (the idea that art expresses the artist’s feelings, perceptions, ideas, etc.)? How does Gilbert’s wise impressionist critic, then, regard the “original” work that has attracted his or her attention—what is its value to that critic, and why?

6. On 778-79 (Ernest.“The highest Criticism, then, is more…”), Gilbert discusses the relative standing of the literary arts and the visual/plastic arts: a task that has been undertaken by a number of philosophers, most notably, perhaps, Hegel (see Hegel’s Lectures on Fine Art, Leitch 555-63). Why, according to Gilbert, do poets generally deserve a higher rank than painters? What can poets do that painters cannot? In what sense are the latter subject to limitations to which poets are not subject? Furthermore, why is music, according to Gilbert “the perfect type of art” (778 bottom)? (Gilbert’s idea may be drawn from Wilde’s old professor at Oxford, Walter Pater, who writes in his 1877 essay “The School of Giorgione” that “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music”; for a selection by Pater, see Leitch 711-19.) In responding, consider Gilbert’s statement that “It is through its very incompleteness that Art becomes complete in beauty…” (779 top). Why, in his opinion, is supposedly “incomplete” art better material for the critic’s creative activity than more definite and determinate works?

From Part 2

7. On 779-82 (Ernest. “* * * You have told me that the highest…”), Gilbert, as an impressionist, largely rejects the notion that a critic must “explain” works of art, and instead addresses the importance of the critic’s and artist’s “personality” in the acts of perception and interpretation that go towards excellent criticism and art. What does Gilbert apparently mean by the term “personality” (780 bottom), and why is it so vital to him as an impressionist critic? In what sense is it true, according to Gilbert in connection with his doctrine of “personality,” to say that “there is no such thing as Shakespeare’s Hamlet” (781)? Furthermore, in Gilbert’s view, what may eventually happen with respect to “the elect spirits of each age” (781 bottom) as the world becomes more civilized? What form of life and what relationship with art will they adopt, and why so?

8. On 782-83 (Ernest. “But where in this is the function…”), in responding to Ernest’s question about the “function of the critical spirit” (782), Gilbert returns to his earlier invocation of Matthew Arnold’s emphasis on the need for the “critical power” in art and human affairs more broadly, and casts it in tones of praise for the “contemplative life,” the vita contemplativa so often remarked upon by the ancient and Renaissance philosophers. In Gilbert’s view, what is the aim, and the benefit, of living the contemplative life, the life replete with moments flowing from right exercise of one’s critical spirit or faculty? How does he respond to Ernest’s question as to whether living one’s life like the gods of old, with an attitude of what Gilbert has called “disinterested curiosity” (782) and “looking down from the high tower of Thought” upon human affairs might be condemned as flagrantly immoral? Why is it, according to Gilbert, that “The sure way of knowing nothing about life is to try to make oneself useful” (783)?

9. General question: We may have read Walter Pater’s “Conclusion” to Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873; see Leitch 716-19). If so, what points of contact can you find between Gilbert’s ideas in “The Critic as Artist” (especially Part II, 779-83) and the aesthetic notions and program for living that Pater lays out in his controversial “Conclusion” to The Renaissance? How do the differences in style and rhetorical approach between Pater and Wilde, respectively, affect the message we may take from their efforts?

10. General Question: In your view, what is the critic’s relation to the work of art? Does the art critic or literary critic have a responsibility to carry out Matthew Arnold’s imperative “to see the object as in itself it really is” (refer to Arnold’s formulation of “the critic’s task” or “the critical power”; Leitch 684-85), or do you think critics have more important and creative things to do? How do you position yourself with regard to Oscar Wilde’s defiantly glib overturning of Matthew Arnold in “The Critic as Artist” with the quip (given to Ernest as an encapsulation of Gilbert’s argument) that critics should “see the object as in itself it really is not”? Explain.

11. General question: In the selections from “The Decay of Lying” and “The Critic as Artist,” Oscar Wilde is articulating a form of literary impressionism. Such a theory generally rejects mimetic criticism (which centers on the belief that art should strive to represent human life and the realm of nature accurately), but how does it also differ from the expressive theory we find in the English Romantic poets? Explain. Moreover, how much value (if any) do you think Wilde’s fin-de-siècle literary impressionism still holds for those who engage with art and literature today? Can one be an impressionist critic without being accused of social and political irresponsibility? What is the basis of such charges? Explain.

12. General question. What advantages does Oscar Wilde’s use of Socratic dialog bestow upon the two assigned essays (“The Critic as Artist” and “The Decay of Lying”) in making the case that lying is a vital element of human society and that the demand for truth-telling is vulgar and misguided, or that criticism is at least as valuable and creative as literature itself? In other words, how does the conversational or “dialogical” form allow Wilde to convey his main critical arguments more effectively than a more common, lecture-bound critical format would allow? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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